NOTES FROM THE FIELD
In this series, thoseinvolved with CLC foreign missions profile one aspect of our overseas endeavors.
Three-and-a-half hours of pure and unbridled joy and thankfulness as only our brothers and sisters in Africa can express it. That is what I witnessed and was privileged to be a part of at the Mission Evangelique Lutherienne de Confession du Togo (MELC) Bible Institute graduation on March 5th, 2017. An outdoor meeting place was rented for the event because the MELC church building on the outskirts of Lome, Togo, would not hold the 250-300 attendees they were expecting. I was told that this facility had typically been used for weddings, but because it was in such disrepair, it wasn’t rented out much anymore. There was a tattered tarp-covered stage on one side with
tree-shaded areas for the guests to sit on the other three sides. The middle area was an open space. I’ve observed that this open space is common in the churches of West Africa as it provides a place for the “conga line” dancing that takes place in every service.
After a thirty-minute taxi ride through the crowded streets of Lome, I arrived about fifteen minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. There was music playing and the seating areas were packed. Well over three hundred church members, family, and friends were in attendance. Many of the church members traveled three or four hours to celebrate the graduation of their pastor. There was definitely a buzz of excitement in the air as everyone waited. I was given a seat on the stage with Pastor Kossi sitting next to me along with several elders from the congregations. There was also one government dignitary on the stage. I sat and watched the people visit and interact as I tried to take it all in. Then suddenly, the music stopped and the chatter died down as the music for “Stand Up, Stand Up, For Jesus” began to play. Then everyone seemed to turn their heads around all at once as they began to look to a corner far in the back where the graduates were emerging as they began marching through the crowd, literally marching, to the beat of the hymn. Everyone erupted in cheers and the ladies filled the halls with their shrill African yells of joy. I’m sure the folks out on the street could hear the noise from blocks away. The graduates were all dressed in black pants, white shirts, and red ties. They held their Bibles closely to their chest with their right hand and swung their left arm like soldiers to the beat of the music as they marched in lock-step to the stage. Once on the stage they continued to march in place as they turned to face the crowd of friends and relatives.
When the hymn was finished they took their seats, and Pastor Kossi went to the lectern to begin the service in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He then asked for the Lord’s blessings on the service and on those who had gathered. This was followed by a sermon based on Luke 7:24-30. Pastor Kossi encouraged the graduates by reminding them of the words of Jesus describing John the Baptist, and telling them that it is now their privilege to take up the work of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Following the sermon, several guests were welcomed, including a representative from the office of the President of Togo. Pastor Kossi specifically mentioned Missionary David Koenig and Missionary Matthew Ude as honorary guests who could not be in attendance. Then there was more singing and, as is their tradition, conga lines. First the women formed a conga line and danced and sang for several minutes. They were followed by the Sunday school teacher leading the children in the next conga line, and then the men followed with their own. Again, I just don’t have adequate words to describe the joy that overflows as they dance and sing to the Lord!
After the final conga line, I was introduced and was asked to preach the graduation sermon. I preached on Joshua 1:1-9, my favorite Scripture for a graduation sermon. I reminded and encouraged the graduates and all those in attendance that we can go forward in life, serving God with boldness, courage, strength, and confidence; knowing that we serve a God who has proven Himself to be faithful in every promise He has ever made. The cross of Jesus Christ and His empty tomb are the ultimate proof of His faithfulness, and this truth gives us all the strength and courage we need!
“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
When I was finished, the graduates were told to stand, and the crowd erupted into joy once again as an impromptu conga line began and lasted for several minutes. One could tell that Pastor Kossi was not expecting this, but he just looked over at me and smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He leaned over and said with a big smile, “The people are very happy this day.”
Once things settled down, Pastor Kossi had each graduate come forward to receive his certificate of completion. The certificate reads as follows:
This certifies that ____________________has successfully completed a course of instruction in the
Word of God and the Doctrines of the Church of the Lutheran Confession and has given public testimony of his agreement
with these doctrines and is thus officially certified to
serve as a Pastor and Evangelist.
Deborah, a woman from the local congregation, also faithfully attended classes for the past several years. She received a certificate that was similar, but that states that she will now serve the Lord in women’s and children’s ministry.
After they received their certificates, several honored guests came by to shake their hands. Then the music started again and each graduate slowly danced his way through the crowds to the area where his family, guests, and congregation members were sitting. There was much hugging, handshaking, appreciation, and just overall joy as the crowd sang and danced in typical Africa style for the next thirty minutes or so.
What a day! What a privilege!
Thanks be to our faithful God for providing more faithful preachers and teachers of His saving Word!
Todd Ohlmann is a full-time visiting missionary for the Church of the Lutheran Confession.